Soaring Acclaim Casts a Long Shadow – The Mercury – 28 January, 2019

New Zealand is starting to groan under its millions of visitors, prompting calls to ramp up its visitor tax, writes Greg Barns

LAST week the New York Times ran what could best be described as a sombre analysis of the impact of the tourism boom on New Zealand. There are lessons for Tasmania in what is happening across the Tasman Sea. Like Tasmania, New Zealand has had millions of people flocking to experience its clean, green environment in recent years and the focus of the tourism industry is now on drawing in the burgeoning Chinese middle class as a key market for growth.

The growth in tourism in New Zealand in the past five years has been phenomenal — 3.8 million tourists hit New Zealand last year and the forecast is for that number to be 5 million by 2024. Bearing in mind the population of that nation is 4.8 million, this is an extraordinary growth story.

But not everyone is happy about it. And the New Zealand government has now begun to adopt the user-pays principle to help pay for the infrastructure and wear and tear costs imposed by the tourism boom. The New York Times article, published on Wednesday, noted that “popular tourist spots around New Zealand have reported that the local infrastructure cannot handle the tourist influx, forcing the government to scramble to mitigate the damage. Starting later this year, visitors to New Zealand will pay a fee of 35 New Zealand dollars, or about $23, which will be split between conservation and infrastructure. And last October, the fees to stay at huts or campsites in New Zealand’s most popular national parks for hiking were doubled for overseas visitors.”

Sound familiar? Note that when the newly minted Lord Mayor of Hobart Anna Reynolds raised the idea of a tourism levy she was howled down by the self-interested tourism lobby and the Premier Mr Hodgman, who appears captured by that lobby and of course the gaming lobby, who bankrolled his successful election campaign a year ago.

One destination in New Zealand that has suffered in terms of tourism placing infrastructure and the environment at risk is Queenstown on the South Island. Queenstown is a popular skiing destination and a starting point for many who travel across the magnificent landscape of that part of the world.

The Mayor of Queenstown, Jim Boult, told the New York Times that while he supported the government finally moving to address the cost of increased tourism, there needed to be a much larger tax take because the increase in tourism is having such a negative impact on his area.

No doubt the tourism lobby, the Hodgman Government and other opponents of making tourists contribute to the cost of infrastructure and the environment they use and enjoy, will say that the scale of tourism in New Zealand is much larger than here. But the mantra from the Hodgman Government is that it wants to keep tourism numbers growing. On New Year’s Day the Premier tweeted that “Tasmania is the most popular tourist destination in the nation and our brand has never been stronger. We have what the rest of the world wants; high quality premium products, a great way of life, and a wonderful natural environment.” Last year, during the state election campaign, Mr Hodgman boasted that “Tasmanian tourism is leading the nation in visitor growth,” and that his Government’s “next-term priorities are to get tourists to stay longer, see more of our state and to spend more.”

And who will pay for these tourists? You, the long suffering taxpayer, with Mr Hodgman making an election commitment to spend $72 million on what he calls a “statewide Visitor Economy Roads Package.”

Over the past few months we have seen controversy emerging as the Hodgman government opens up ecologically sensitive areas to helicopter fly-in, fly-out operations, and accommodation for wealthy tourists. The message is clear from what passes for political leadership in this state. Boom, more boom and more and more boom. Tourism is the new saviour of the fragile economy that is inherent in an island with a population of just over 500,000.

The context of the New York Times article was in fact the risk that there will be serious resentment among New Zealanders from the constantly growing influx of tourists. Poor behaviour from tourists, crowded roads and recreational areas and a decline in key infrastructure in cities, towns and rural areas are all risk factors. Simon Milne, an academic in tourism studies at the Auckland University of Technology, warns that there is a history in his country of governments and tourism chiefs ignoring local concerns about the relentless drive for more visitors.

Do not think that Tasmania is immune to such a state of affairs as is occurring in New Zealand. Tourism has become an obsession for government. We are bombarded with plans and mock-ups of new hotels and other tourism ventures these days. Meanwhile affordable housing is now an oxymoron in Tasmania.

Hobart barrister Greg Barns is a human rights lawyer and former adviser to state and federal Liberal governments.